For many of us, drinking alcohol is part and parcel of socialising with friends or relaxing after work, meaning we often forget it’s a potentially debilitating drug.
“Whilst drinking can sometimes bring us pleasure, if we’re honest with ourselves, alcohol seems to play a much more central role in our lives than many of us feel comfortable with,” Mark Leyshon, senior policy officer at Alcohol Concern tells HuffPost UK.
“It’s heavily advertised and widely available – in bars, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, corner shops and petrol stations – and has become increasingly affordable. Sometimes it feels easier to accept the offer of a drink than to say ‘no’, and it’s all too easy to slip into bad habits.”
This ingrained social acceptability can make it difficult for some to recognise when their alcohol consumption is becoming dangerous, but it can also create problems for their loved ones.
If you think your friend or family member is drinking too much, how do you approach the issue without being told you’re overreacting?
With the theme of this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week being “alcohol and families”, we found out the best ways to tackle the issue.
According to Leyshon, if you’re unsure whether a loved one is abusing alcohol or just having a good time, your first action should be to look at their behaviour and see if you recognise a few key signs of dependency.
“These include starting to drink earlier in the day and appearing noticeably stressed or anxious when a few hours have passed since their last drink,” he says.
“The effects of their drinking might also become noticeable, for example, increased hangovers, missing agreed appointments and frequently becoming short-tempered.”
Amy* highlights that your loved one may not fit the stereotype of an alcoholic. Her sister, Carys, died at the age of 28 due to the irreparable damage alcohol had caused to her body.
“My sister was a 21-year- old university graduate when she first became ill,” she says.
“For seven years we battled as a family to get Carys the help she needed to beat her addiction. Many people, including medical professionals, found it difficult to accept that Carys was an alcoholic and often assumed that we were exaggerating the extent of her addiction.
“Carys didn’t look like an alcoholic. She was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman in her early twenties. She had a degree, she had a home and she had a loving and supportive family – she didn’t fit the bill.”
With that in mind, the most important thing when considering whether a loved one is abusing alcohol or not may be to forget any preconceived ideas you have about alcohol dependency. If you recognise a concerning change their behaviour, you are justified in addressing it.
Leyshon says it will likely feel awkward and uncomfortable to broach the subject of a loved one’s drinking, and the temptation to raise the issue when you are angry and upset is completely understandable.
“However, it’s obviously better to address the subject when you are feeling calm and they are not intoxicated,” he says.
“Try to be honest about your feelings, but also sensitive – for example, avoid using names that carry a particular stigma like ‘alcoholic’ and ‘drunk’.
“Talk about their relationship with alcohol and the consequences of their drinking, but try to avoid harsh criticism and use positive language, such as highlighting the benefits they might feel by reducing their consumption.”
Taking practical steps such as limiting the availability of alcohol in the house or socialising in places that aren’t centred on booze may help a loved one, but Leyshon says it’s also important to recognise that there’s only so much you can do.
“It’s a natural response to want to do everything you can to help someone cut down their drinking or stop altogether, even trying to hide alcohol from the drinker,” he says.
“However, it’s important to remember that you are not responsible for, and cannot control, a loved one’s drinking.
“You are not the reason they drink and, ultimately, it is up to them to take charge of their own drinking behaviour and seek some professional advice from their GP or other alcohol services. Find services near you via Alcohol Concern’s local services directory.”
When trying to help a loved one cut down or stop drinking altogether, it’s also important to recognise the impact this can have on your own wellbeing.
This is something Su*, who’s been supported by Solihull Integrated Addiction Service (SIAS) - a partnership between four organisations jointly responsible for the delivery of the drug, alcohol and gambling services in the borough - knows first hand.
Her son has been sober for 18 months, but she says when his drinking was at its worst, she “reached rock bottom”.
“I didn’t have a life. I was stressed, anxious all the time, sleep deprived. Living with an addict was slowly killing me,” she says.
“Everything revolved around my son and his drinking. I was on medication, but nothing helped. I lived in fear every day wondering if this would be the day I found him dead. I didn’t go out, too terrified of what I would find when I returned.
“As his mother I felt I had failed, that it was all my fault, that I had let him down. I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. No hope of things ever changing. I didn’t want to live to fight any longer.”
Thankfully Su and her son were able to find support via SIAS. While a GP or Alcohol Concern will be able to direct your loved one towards help, you could also benefit from finding a support service for yourself.
Adfam is a charity dedicated to improving the lives of families affected by drug and alcohol addiction. Visit the Adfam website to find a list family support services in your area.
*Speakers’ surnames are not included to protect anonymity.